Constance Buchanan, Former Director of HDS’s Women’s Studies in Religion Program, Passes Away

September 22, 2020
Constance Buchanan
Constance Buchanan in 2006. Photo by Steve Gilbert

Constance Buchanan, a former director of the Women’s Studies in Religion Program at Harvard Divinity School who developed the program into a permanent part of the School and University, died September 16, 2020. She was 73.

A faculty member and associate dean at HDS for 20 years, Buchanan is credited with leading the Women’s Studies in Religion Program (WSRP) into an internationally recognized center for research on faith, gender, race, and sexual orientation.

“A former WSRP director, Harvard educational pioneer, and HDS Gomes bicentennial honoree, Connie Buchanan was an indefatigable supporter of the women and religion program at HDS for many decades,” said HDS Dean David N. Hempton. “She had a remarkable capacity for stimulating interest in and support for the WSRP, and for inspiring loyalty and commitment from its many benefactors and beneficiaries. Spending time in Connie’s company was one of the greatest pleasures of my deanship at HDS. We will miss her very much.”

Buchanan became director of the WSRP in 1977, and had the foresight to reach outside academia to find philanthropic women with passions and interests that intersected with the WSRP's mission, even though many of them had no direct Harvard connections.

“She really invented the WSRP out of whole cloth. There was a nascent program before she came to HDS, but there was no precedent for what she created. That was the challenge: How do you create a new academic field where there was nothing?” said Ann Braude, who succeeded Buchanan as the second long-term director of the WSRP. “She had to be able to imagine what was possible, and she had to be able to inspire people to believe that women could have a voice where they had none. She was the catalyst who could both imagine and could bring it to fruition. That took intelligence, commitment, vision, and, more than anything, faith in other women.”

During her time at Harvard, Buchanan also spent six years as a special assistant to University President Derek Bok. She contributed to his University-wide project on improving the quality of teaching and learning.

"You had the utmost confidence in her sincerity of purpose and the extent of her dedication to the improvement of education," Bok said in a 2017 profile of Buchanan. "It was a pleasure to work with someone who shared the same values as I did. Intelligence and knowledge are important, but that inner commitment and dedication to the ultimate goal of education makes a decisive difference."

For Clarissa Atkinson, a former WSRP Research Associate who later became a faculty member and associate dean for academic affairs at HDS, Buchanan was both a close colleague and a close friend. The two had offices on the third floor of Swartz Hall (then Andover Hall) and not only worked together often on matters related to the WSRP, but also “laughed uproariously.”

“Connie had an extraordinary ability: when she listened to people talk about their work, she paid such close attention that she drew from them ideas about that work that they had not been aware of before Connie recognized them,” said Atkinson. “She perceived aspects and connections and links that we might never have found on our own. I'll remember her for that, and much more.”

Atkinson also described Buchanan as determined to include African American scholars as major figures in the WSRP initiative, and the African American experience as a major component of the program’s research and writing. Buchanan was “a stubborn and determined fighter for justice,” said Atkinson.

Buchanan’s scholarship included an examination of the link between motherhood and the welfare of American society to understand why fundamental social values are threatened. Her 1996 book, Choosing to Lead: Women and the Crisis of American Values, shows that while public debate often blames women for the nation’s “crisis of values,” women’s leadership actually has the potential to solve this crisis by redefining the American pattern of adult life and work.

In 1997, Buchanan left HDS to join the Ford Foundation, where she served as a senior program officer working in various fields, including religion, education, and media.

Her contributions have had such an influence on HDS that members of the School community have recognized her multiple times. In 2005, as the School celebrated the 50th anniversary of women being admitted to HDS, Buchanan was fêted with a portrait displayed in the Braun Room of Swartz Hall.

Students sitting in front of a portrait of Constance BuchananLater, in 2017, HDS alumni honored Buchanan’s impact on WSRP, on the School, and on the study of religion by naming her one of that year’s Peter J. Gomes, STB '68 Honorees.

“She made us understand that religion matters, that gender matters, and they matter in public and they matter in our world, and that we can use them to make the world better,” said Braude.

—by Michael Naughton